Ironman North Carolina: Final Thoughts

On Training
Training for an Ironman sucked. I don't think there is any other way to describe it, and I know that might be confusing because why would you purposely do something that sucks? To be honest, I asked myself that question constantly. I was unhappy throughout a lot of my training because it was just so demanding and I was so tired and really had no time for anything except working, training, eating, and sleeping. Looking back now, though, I realize that there were a lot of factors that played into it that I couldn't really see at the time. Life has been a complete whirlwind this year and right up until IMNC, I was going all day every day at 100%. My training started at the same time that I finished school, moved to a new city 2 days later, and started a new job 4 days after that. I realize now that that was just...a lot to take on all at one time. That's not to say that it wouldn't have been hard even without all of those other moving parts, but they certainly added to my already-full plate.

I have said many times that I knew training for an Ironman would be tough, but I never knew how tough. I am just now getting back to normal life - and well, really living a normal life for the first time all year - and every normal day makes me realize how insane training was and how it completely flipped things upside down. It was without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever done, for so many reasons, but I’m really, really proud to be able to say that I did it and I made it through. I knew that the actual Ironman would be a 12+ hour day, but I don’t think I really envisioned 6-8 hour training days. I felt so weak at the time, but looking back now I can see how much stronger it made me.

On Doubts
It’s actually a little hard for me to look back at my training, because while I’m really proud of the fact that it happened, it didn’t happen gracefully and I’m a little bit embarrassed by that. I was plagued with fear and doubt and that overshadowed a lot of the months I spent training. An Ironman was a lot to take on, and I know that, but looking back I was just so…afraid. All the time. Afraid of so many things - of having to share my lane in the pool, of being by myself on the bike, of reinjuring my foot, of not getting to spend time with my family, of not getting to go do fun things - and that negativity really affected a lot of my training. I still managed to get it done, but I didn’t enjoy a lot of it and I think it was largely because I was just so scared, both of the work I needed to put in and of the idea of failing anyway. 

I have never been afraid of taking on challenges before this, no matter how unlikely they might seem, because I always believed deep down that I could do them. Even when I couldn’t run to the end of my block, somewhere in my heart I knew that if I just kept at it, I could eventually run long enough to do a 5k. I wasn’t even afraid of doing an Ironman when I signed up, but the more I trained and the harder I got, I felt like I was just barely getting by and that there was no way I could make it through the race. I said that, out loud, many times, and I honestly think I might have quit if I didn’t have 3 other people in this with me. The fear overwhelmed me and for the first time since I started all of this stuff about 5 years ago, I really thought I might have finally found my limit. 

On Overcoming
There is a reason for the saying, “Trust your training.” All of those months I spent doubting myself but pushing through anyway finally paid off on race day. I didn’t get to do the full race course so I’ll never know what would have happened with an additional 56 miles out on the course that day (and in that headwind, ugh), but I do know that the 9 hours I did spend on it were a testament to my training, my coaching, and my ultimate unwillingness to give up (despite the number of times I strongly considered it during training). 

I had hoped the bike would be my story of triumph, but with the shortened course and the strong winds, that’s not the story I get to tell. Instead, the run ended up being my story of triumph that day. I ran consistently and was training for the Big Sur Marathon up until March of this year, but then I abruptly stopped running when I injured my foot during the Shamrock Half Marathon, so by the time I started official Ironman training, instead of the solid running base I'd planned to have, I had to work back up from basically nothing. When my 20-week training plan started in June I'd only been back to running for about 3 weeks. I was still supplementing a lot of my runs with the elliptical and my longest "long" run was up to 5.5 miles. I think back to those two months from March to May when my foot just didn't seem to be getting any better, when it would feel kind of okay so I'd optimistically try to do a test "run" of a few steps in my parking lot only to be completely dejected when I felt immediate sharp pain, when I seriously tried to come to terms with the very real possibility that I might have to walk all 26.2 miles of the Ironman marathon if things continued the way they were. But by some miracle over the last 5 months I was able to get back to running, train for, and complete a marathon! I was so worried I wasn't going to be prepared for it, but I was able to run it pain-free (well, as pain-free as a marathon can be, I guess) in just under 4.5 hours. It wasn’t the PR I was hoping for, but it was closer to my PR than the other 2, standalone marathons I’ve run, so I was over the moon.

On My Journey
I don't know when my Ironman dream was born. I started participating in triathlons about 3.5 years ago and by the end of my first season, with one Olympic under my belt, I knew I would most likely do a half Ironman one day, and from there it followed that maybe, maybe, a full Ironman would be in the picture eventually. Then it took me 2 years to a 70.3, and training for that was the hardest, most-time consuming thing I'd ever done. I had a great race, but knowing how much work the training had been made me question whether I really had what it took to ever do a full, and it wasn't something I planned on doing for at least a year or two.

There aren't many full IM races on the east coast of the U.S. (I've never had to fly to a race and really didn't want the added stress of air travel and the associated logistics for an already high-stress event), and surprisingly few in the U.S. really, and none of the ones offered every really appealed to me. I knew what my options would be for the far-off scenario when I might want to do a full, but I figured I would cross that bridge when I came to it and pick the least uninteresting option. 

But then...the Universe spoke. Or at least I thought it did (more on that later). One of the major requirements I had if I were even going to consider doing a full was that it had to be put on by Ironman and not an independent race organization. I was browsing Reddit on my phone at dinner last December when I read that Ironman was buying Beach2Battleship, the independently owned race that had been my first half Ironman, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve had the idea of a full Ironman in my head as a one day, far away goal for a while now, but I don’t know that I ever really saw myself here. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I actually made it this far.

On the IMNC Shortened Course Debacle
Time to face the music on this one. Let me just set the stage, though: it’s 4 days until race day. I’ve been tapering for 2.5 weeks and my emotions are running high. One second I can’t wait to get to Wilmington, the next second I want to crawl under my covers and never come out. I’m at work, and all I can think about is going home and packing in preparation for my drive to North Carolina the following day. It’s been 10 days since Hurricane Matthew hit and although rumors about how that may have affected the race have been flying around, they seem to have quieted. I mean, it’s 4 days before the race, it’s go time, right?

Getting the email about the shortened bike course less than FOUR DAYS before I was supposed to be riding it felt like I got sucker punched. I had been training for this race for ten months, with the last four of those being my intensive, official training. I had given up any semblance of a social life, had started getting up at 3:50am, and had hardly done anything except work, swim, bike, run, eat, or sleep since June, for one goal: to be an Ironman. Finding out that that all of that work, all of those sacrifices had been in vain, that at the end of the day I would have gone through all of that and still wouldn’t be an Ironman - and there was nothing I could do about it - yeah, it was devastating.

I was in a really bad mood the couple of days before the race. I tried to put on a happy face but I just couldn’t. Doing all of the pre-race activities felt like going through the motions, and not the exciting and nerve-wracking experience it should have been. Fortunately by race morning I had given in and accepted my fate: it wasn’t a full Ironman, but it was my Ironman. 

I put a lot of energy into hearing, “You are an Ironman!” at the finish, into being an Ironman, and at the end of the day…I don’t know how much it mattered. I thought that those things were important, but I learned and grew so much from my training and from race day itself, and from showing up despite it not being the day that I wanted, and ultimately that’s what I’m taking from this experience. And I know that sounds like something people say to make themselves feel better, and maybe it is, but I honestly just don’t care anymore whether I’m an Ironman or not. I had a great day and a great race and I was happy the whole time (okay maybe not that happy during the 25mph headwind on the bike) and even if it wasn't the full Ironman I trained and planned for, it was 14.6 miles and over 3 hours longer than anything I've ever done before. The biggest thing I got from this experience wasn’t a title, it was a lifestyle.

With that said…having completed 83% of a full Ironman, I hesitate to call or think of myself as one. I don’t really want to tell anyone I did it because I don’t want to have to explain how I didn’t do the full course, and no not because I didn’t finish or something like that, but because 84.6 miles was how long the course was that day. I bought a finisher’s jacket (even though I SWORE I wasn’t going to but ugh, I had to go by the convention center the day after and the expo was still set up and I was still under Ironman’s magic spell and it was really cute…) and I feel weird wearing it because I know it should have an asterisk or something. The story of my first Ironman will always be a weird experience that will have to come with a disclaimer, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not an Ironman, but I am an Ironman*. Ironmanish? Something like that.

On What’s Next
It’s been my experience that the natural reaction to finishing a big race is, “Okay so when’s the next one?!” Although I knew this wasn't going to be a one-and-done for me, I was excited about not training so intensely for a while and wasn't planning on doing another Ironman next year. But with our first full IM not really being a full IM, that conversation actually started among our group during our pre-race prep. We talked a lot about pros and cons, and the discussion this time was so different than last time. We were so excited about IMNC last year - we were already familiar with the course from doing the half, it’s fast and flat, it’s in a coastal location that we love - but I personally wasn’t excited about coming back to Wilmington for a third time. My main consideration this time was actually the bike course. Since I hate the bike I think I’ve always been like well, I don’t like to bike so it’s probably going to suck no matter where it is, but then I started to think the opposite. The bike course in IMNC may lack hills but it is SO boring and not scenic at all, and I really wanted something different this time. I figured I could deal with whatever the run course is - IMNC was nice but not amazing. And of course, another down current swim would be nice but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had a more (but still not super) challenging swim. And, not that it’s a huge consideration considering it makes up like 30 seconds of the whole day, but the finish line at IMNC was pretty lackluster tbh.

We talked about a few difference possibilities and quickly narrowed it down to two choices: Louisville and Chattanooga. Louisville’s swim is against the current for the first 1/3, but then with current, while Chattanooga is all down river with current. Both bikes are hilly. The run is hilly in Chattanooga but flat(ish? I seriously don’t believe people who use this word) in Louisville. I don’t know that much about the finish line at Chattanooga, but Louisville has one of the best finish lines in all of Ironman.  And the bike course at Louisville goes through horse country so….see you in 2017, IM Louisville!

Ironman North Carolina: The Run

Just like with T1, the first thing we did in T2 was grab our run gear bags and head into the changing tent. I immediately sat down on a chair and started digging through my bag. I’d packed shorts, capris, long pants, a short sleeved shirt, and a long sleeved shirt because I had no clue if I was going to want to change or what I was going to want to wear. I decided to keep on my tri kit and just throw on a long sleeve top - the one I purchased at Walmart for $10 two days before the race, intending to put it in my special needs bag as a throwaway (those bags are available at mile 13 of the run, and you don’t get them back), but at the last minute put in my run gear bag thinking it might be the perfect weight for the temperature. Turns out, it was! It wasn't fashionable and I hate my pictures from the run because my whole outfit looked so stupid, but it was functional. Other than that all I changed were my socks (at least I think I changed my socks?). My toes had been frozen for the entire duration of the bike and all I could think about for the last several miles of the bike was getting to the changing tent and warming them up! 

There are volunteers in the tent who will actually help you change and get your stuff out of your bags, and a woman came over to me and immediately started helping me. I didn’t need a ton of help since I wasn't changing al my clothes, but she helped me go through my bag to find what I wanted to wear, and when I had a pile of clothes and bike stuff I’d taken off piled up in a chair next to my bag, she told me to go ahead and that she’d take care of packing it back up for me. For some reason I was totally taken aback and I asked her, "Are you sure?" And she said, "Yes." I asked her her name to thank her, and when she told me her name was Cindy, I started laugh-crying and told her that’s my mom’s name and then I was crying trying to tell her that my mom wasn’t there, and she gave me a hug before I left the tent. It surprised me that I was so emotional, although it probably shouldn't have - it had already been a long day and I was about to go run a marathon and I knew I would get to see my family when I got out on the run and I just had a lot of feelings! And all day I was so thankful for all the volunteers and tried to thank as many as I could, and in that moment I was so emotional and just so grateful for her being there and it was honestly one of the best parts of the whole day. 

Ironman North Carolina: The Bike

If you're just picking up here, it's IMNC day and I've already checked in, racked my bike, and swam!

I entered T1 and immediately went to get my bike gear bag. Unlike past races I’ve done, including B2B last year, literally the only thing we had set up in our transition spot were our bikes. All of our bike gear - shoes, helmet, everything - were placed in a bag that we dropped off the day before and were waiting for us that morning. You have to write your number on the bags but people decorate them with markers, duct tape, etc. to try to make them stand out more so they’re easier to find. I had colored in my M dot in the Ironman logo on my bag just because I got bored when we were decorating ours the night before, but that actually turned out to be awesome because no one else had done that and mine was easy to spot! 

I grabbed my bag and ran into the women’s changing tent - everyone has to go through the changing tent whether you want to change or not - and put on my socks, shoes, helmet, sunglasses, and a long sleeved cycling jersey. It was hard getting that jersey on since I was a little wet! I had also brought long pants but ultimately decided I didn’t want to wear them. I handed my bag to a volunteer and I’m only like 40% sure because I don’t remember her name, but I think I asked what it was and thanked her by name (thanks for that tip, Rebecca Jo!).

I ran out to get my bike, talked to myself out loud a couple times so I could remember my number and where my bike was, and then I got it quickly and was off! I saw Ben one more time as I was heading to the bike out.